Margaret Sutherland (1896-1984), composer, pianist and teacher, was born on 20 November 1896 in Adelaide, youngest of five children of George Sutherland, journalist, and his wife Ada Alice, née Bowen. George had moved from Melbourne to Adelaide in the early 1880s, and by 1902 he had returned with his family to Melbourne. The Sutherlands were a close-knit and intellectually gifted family who had emigrated from Scotland to Australia and settled in Melbourne in 1870. Margaret Sutherland’s uncles, including Alexander and William, were all teachers, academics or professionals. One of her aunts, Jane, was an artist, while her other two aunts were musicians: Jessie, a lieder singer and Julia, a teacher of piano from whom Margaret received her first music lessons. Both her parents were amateur musicians.
Educated at Baldur Girls’ Grammar School, Kew, she was taught music by the composer Mona McBurney. She acknowledged McBurney’s significance as an early musical mentor; and McBurney may have been the first to inspire in the young student the notion that musical composition might be a possible occupation for a woman, as an alternative to the conventional female roles of pianist and teacher.
In 1913, following success in an audition in which she performed her own piano sonata, Sutherland was offered two scholarships at the Melbourne (or Albert Street, later Melba) Conservatorium, for study with Edward Goll (piano) and Fritz Hart (composition). Her earliest surviving compositions (the piano sonata is lost) date from this period and comprise songs for voice and piano in which she already showed a mature grasp of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century harmonic devices.
Incensed by the dismissal of Goll as an ‘enemy alien’, she followed him in 1915 to the University of Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. There she won a further scholarship to continue her studies with him. She never completed any formal awards for music studies and came to despise such things as degrees and examinations, considering them straitjackets that inhibited genuinely spontaneous artistic development. Under Goll’s mentorship, however, she developed into a fine pianist and also became a part-time piano teacher at the Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Melbourne (1918-23), and then at the University of Melbourne Conservatorium (1923-38). She was also active as a recitalist and chamber music pianist, especially in performances of her own music, for much of her life.
A desire to pursue musical composition as her main career led Sutherland to undertake the first of two study trips to England and Europe. She left Australia at the end of 1923 and lived principally in London, Vienna and Paris during the next two years, when her main composition instructor was (Sir) Arnold Bax. Again she declined to enrol formally at any institution, preferring to pursue private study and observe the music scene in these centres. Her major compositional achievement while studying with Bax was her Sonata for Violin and Piano, which he (now famously) described as ‘the best work I know by a woman’. She returned to Melbourne at the end of 1925, and on 30 July 1927 at Camberwell, married a Melbourne physician and psychiatrist, Norman Arthur Albiston, with Presbyterian forms. The couple had a son and a daughter. Soon, however, the marriage became dysfunctional and they subsequently separated.
Critics regard Sutherland as one of the most significant composers of Australia’s post-colonial period. Her output ranged in genres from opera, ballet and incidental music for the theatre, to vocal, orchestral, chamber and instrumental music, and much music written for young performers (chiefly small choral and piano works). Her preference was for music of small to moderate dimensions: for example, her only opera, The Young Kabbarli (1964)—in which she collaborated with Maie Casey—is a one-act chamber opera. She contended that female composers had a different sensibility and aesthetic priorities from male composers, but that their contribution was no less important.
Sutherland’s output fell into two large periods, pre- and post-World War II. The earlier period was dominated by songs, short choral works, chamber music and brief (largely didactic) piano works, which show influences of post-Elgarian English music, including the so-called ‘pastoral’ style, but extending to the more harmonically adventurous styles of Bax, John Ireland and Alexander Scriabin. A leaner, more neo-classical tendency is also apparent during this period, in some chamber and instrumental works and in her first major orchestral work, the Suite on a Theme by Purcell (1938). This tendency became relatively dominant in the later, postwar period, where the influence of Bartok, Hindemith, Prokofiev and Shostakovich contributed to the shaping of her style, while the earlier influences nevertheless remained traceable.